OLD TESTAMENT: Jeremiah 31: 27-34
Last week, we talked about the setting in which the prophet Jeremiah lived and prophesied and much of Jeremiah includes words of judgment for the circumstances of that time. The four chapters beginning with chapter 30 conversely pick up the theme of hope and comfort. These words of hope come in three parts, the first of which includes chapters 30 and 31, which together are commonly called “The Book of Comfort” or “The Book of Consolation”.
The focus of the passage is a promise of the future, a future of fertility and prosperity in response to Jeremiah’s call. The land will be full of people, and the animals will multiply, providing greater sustenance and support. The call “to build and plant” (from last week’s passage) begins to be carried out. No longer will the children suffer for the sins of their parents. Instead, a community will be planted that is different from the one in the past and the sins of that community will be handled according to a new justice.
The whole idea of a “new community” was probably pretty foreign to the hearers of Jeremiah’s message. (Who are we kidding…it’s probably pretty foreign to us!) The whole shape of their community had to do with the past and with the foundations from which they came. We hear about this “new covenant”, the only reference to a “new covenant” in the Old Testament. This is a covenant that holds divine forgiveness. God will forgive the people and no longer remember their sins. This covenant is written on people’s hearts. There are no breakable clay tablets that can just be tossed aside. We are presented with the imagery of a “new Jerusalem”, the holy city that the Lord will build in the future in the midst of humanity. This is probably not intended to be a political city with physical boundaries, but, rather, a manifestation of God’s compassion and justice. It is the place where shalom finally resides, the place of the peaceable Kingdom that God envisioned at Creation.
The vision of Jeremiah’s has an eschatological ring to it, perhaps one that we’re not accustomed to hearing in the Old Testament. Because God has written the capacity for love and faithfulness into us, the days are surely coming. In the meantime, we hope and trust, and we expose our hearts to God.
Much of this covenant has to do with divine forgiveness. But inherent within this discussion is a call to forgiveness of each other. Ernest Hemingway tells the story of the Spanish father who wanted to be reconciled with his son who ran away from home to the city of Madrid. The father misses the son and puts an advertisement in the local newspaper El Liberal. The advertisement read, “Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven! Love, Papa.” Paco is such a common name in Spain that when the father went to the Hotel Montana the next day at noon there were 800 young men named Paco waiting for their fathers! Hemingway’s story reminds us how desperate all of us are for forgiveness.
According to Walter Brueggemann, “In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”…means just for a moment, if only for a moment, you are wiped clean, you are renewed, the past is gone. This, however, is not a destructive thing but, rather, a renewal of what was already there. It is the total and complete forgiveness of the sins of the world. Joan Chittister says that “perhaps forgiveness is the last thing mentioned in the Creed because it is the last thing learned in life. Perhaps none of us can understand the forgiveness of God until we ourselves have learned to forgive.” “For it is in forgiving that we are forgiven.”
Forgiveness is something freely granted, whether earned or deserved; something lovingly offered without thought of acknowledgment or return. It is our way of mirroring the goodness in the heart of a person rather than raising up the harshness of their actions. But, most of all, it makes us one with the human family and allows us to live in the sunlight of the present, not the darkness of the past. Forgiveness alone, of all our human actions, opens up the world to the miracle of infinite possibility. And that, perhaps, is the closest we can come, in our humble human fashion, to the divine act of bestowing grace. (Kent Nerburn, Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace: Living in the Spirit of the Prayer of Saint Francis, p. 120)
a. What is your response to this passage?
b. What does the notion of this “new covenant” mean for you?
c. What does it mean for you to think of this covenant “written on your heart”?
d. What does it say about a “new community”, a leaving of the past ways behind?
e. What does that have to do with forgiveness?
NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Timothy 3: 14-4:5
Remember that the pastoral epistle of 2 Timothy is focused primarily on establishing the “right” personal character of believers. Today’s passage begins by laying out the idea that the main guideline achieving the wisdom and wholeness of God is the holy writings. The writer of Timothy sort of looked upon these writings as sort of a textbook for the faith.
Now keep in mind that for Jewish boys (not girls) who were literally “schooled” in the faith, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings provided the school curriculum as well as Israel’s law book and prayer book. In this society, the way to achieve wisdom was to know them well. For this writer, the holy writings had a targeted purpose “to make you wise for salvation”. The purpose of Scripture, like the purpose of proper schooling, is to produce the well-instructed and disciplined adult, proficient and well-equipped in the graces and skills required for a positive role in church and society.
The beginning of chapter 4 leads into the final section of this second letter to Timothy and focuses on the teaching and preaching ministry of the congregation and whether or not it is properly preparing its hearers for what is to come. The term “inspired by God” in this passage is essentially a translation of the Greek theopneustos, or “God-breathed”. It should be noted that this would mean that the Scripture itself is “God-breathed”, rather than that the writer is merely inspired.
It is traditional to speak of Scripture as “inspired”. There is a long history of unhelpful formulations of what that notion might mean. Without appealing to classical attempts at formulation that characteristically have more to do with “testing” the Spirit than with “not quenching” the Spirit, we may affirm that the force of God’s purpose, will, and capacity for liberation, reconciliation, and new life is everywhere around this text…The Spirit will not be regimented, and therefore none of our reading is guaranteed to be inspired. But it does happen—on occasion.
It does happen that we are blown in and through the text beyond ourselves. It does happen—on occasion—that through the text the Spirit teaches and guides and heals so that the text yields something other than an echo of ourselves. It does happen in prayer and study that believers are led to what is “strange and new.” (From “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection”, by Walter Brueggemann, in Struggling With Scripture, by Walter Brueggemann, William C. Placher, & Brian K. Blount, p. 23-25.)
a. What is your response to this passage?
b. What, for you, is meant by the call for “sound teaching”?
c. Do you think the meaning of that has changed in today’s context?
d. So what reactions do you have to this notion of a “God-breathed” Scripture? How does that notion play into current day literalism?
GOSPEL: Luke 18: 1-8
The Gospel passage for this week begins with Jesus telling a parable about “not losing heart”. The parable ends with a challenge about faith. Essentially, this is one of the few parables in which we are actually told the point before we hear the parable. The parable that is in between may sometimes be a little uncomfortable. Here, the unjust judge is the one used to make a statement about God. Well, we know that God is not unjust, so how does this work? The point is in the response. If this kind of judge, unjust as he was, was willing to respond justly to the widow who asked, don’t you think God will respond to us? (And don’t you think that we are called to respond to each other in the same way?)
Remember here, that the force of this parable heavily depends on the social status and religious duties of the roles of the characters. In ancient Israel, the duty of the judge was to maintain harmonious relations in society. He would have held a very prestigious position. Widows were deprived of the support of a husband and could not inherit their husband’s estate. That instead passed on to sons and brothers. True to Luke’s version of the Gospel, the widow was typical of the “least” of society.
Now the fact that the judge (who held a high position in Jewish society) was not faithful to God actually meant that he was totally unfit for his post. But the widow calls upon the judge for justice. Perhaps she has a legitimate grievance. But the response comes probably because he wanted her to leave him alone. The judge finally does what is right, whether or not it is for the right reasons. In truth, the widow was not just a believer; it was not that she was just faithful. She yearned for a change. She yearned for justice.
Essentially, there is a two-part question raised here. Have we become so calloused that we turn a deaf ear to those who cry out in need? Or have we given up hope that God will hear our own cries for help? Both involved the prospect of “losing heart”. Faith requires a different response to each of these questions.
In some way, it is a reminder that justice alone is hard and cold and calculating. The heart gives justice passion and compassion; the heart is the way to God’s vision of justice. “Pray always and do not lose heart.” As William Willimon said, “if we really believed in the power of prayer, if we really believed that prayer can effect world peace, if we were truly convinced that prayer changes things, heals broken lives, and restores severed relationship, then we would be praying constantly. You couldn’t keep us from praying. But isn’t the problem with prayer the one that Jesus addresses here? We simply lose heart.
Why is that? What does it mean to not lose heart? What does it mean to, putting it in the positive, keep heart? You could translate it as staying focused, as persistence, or even as faith—not blind faith, mind you, but a realization of who and whose you are.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class years ago in which he outlined the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant. He went step by step through it, explaining the promise of God, that God would rescue the Hebrew people from slavery and that they would worship only God and then act in ways that show themselves to be liberated people. And he showed them how that principle showed up in the teaching of Jesus later on. When finished he asked them as a review to tell him what he had just said. He got a variety of attempts, some close some not. Then one little boy raised his hand and put it better than any theologian could have. He said (quoting God), “I saved your butts, so now you go behave.” (From “Written on Their Hearts”, by Dr. Stan G.B. Duncan, available at http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2013/10/written-on-their-hearts.html, accessed 14 October, 2013.)
Maybe keeping heart is the desire that compels us to be something more, to be new, to become new, to be open to God’s recreation of our very lives. And in the meantime, the prophet weeps for something more.
a. What is your response to this passage?
b. What does this parable say about justice for you?
c. What does this say about faith? About prayer?
d. What do you think of the statement from Willimon about what would happen if we really believed in the power of prayer?
e. What is it that stands in our way of “keeping heart”?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The best success I can dream for my life: to have spread a new vision of the world. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. (William Arthur Ward)
Perhaps our real task in prayer is to attune ourselves to the conversation already going on deep in our hearts. Then we may align our conscious intentions with the desire of God being expressed at our core. (from Soul Feast: The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, by Marjorie J. Thompson, p. 31.)
This is prayer. This is deep, faithful listening, waiting for what is hidden to be revealed. Prayer is not words; prayer is what happens when you listen and wait, beneath the words, for the outline of heaven to emerge. (Wayne Muller, in Learning to Pray, 1-2)
Pray always and do not lose heart. Amen.